Is It Possible to Live Without Credit Cards, Debit Cards, and Cash Apps?

Is It Possible to Live Without Credit Cards, Debit Cards, and Cash Apps?

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The old saying “cash is king” hasn’t really been true in ages. Card and app transactions represent about 60% of all purchases between $10 and $100, meaning cash is now used mainly for small purchases—and the occasional business that doesn’t accept credit cards or cash apps. But cash is also still very useful. When a hurricane knocked out the power grid in my town for seven long days a few years ago, local businesses became cash-only overnight, which made having some cash in your emergency kit an absolute necessity. And using cash instead of cards or digital payment systems can help you stay within a budget because of the physical interaction you have with your money. Plus, cash is the ultimate in anonymous spending, as it is virtually untraceable.

But if you want the cash-only lifestyle because of these benefits, you run into some trouble: The world has become increasingly organized around cards, chips, and payment apps. Can you actually live cash-only in today’s world?

Can you pay for all your basics necessities with cash?

A purist cash-only lifestyle would also eliminate bank accounts, of course, but living without a bank account isn’t easy unless you have several Walter White barrels of cash at home to draw on. If you have a job or a retirement fund you’d like to grow via the magic of compound interest, you will likely need to have some kind of bank accounts, so let’s stipulate that. Otherwise you’re cashing a paper paycheck at a check-cashing place and paying ridiculous fees for the privilege. Now then, let’s take a look at the basics of life and whether or not you even have the option of paying cash for them:

  • Housing. It’s possible you can come to an arrangement with a landlord to rent an apartment for cash. This might be a delicate negotiation, though: On the one hand, they might like cash for the same reason you do. On the other hand, the suggestion might make them suspicious of your finances. And believe it or not you can purchase a home with cash—you will run into some serious IRS oversight, though, and you’ll need to find a seller who doesn’t mind receiving payment via dump truck pouring dollar bills onto their front lawn. But let’s rate this a possible, as it can be done.
  • Utilities. Paying your electric, gas, water, and phone bills with cash is possible, but often difficult. Utility companies will gladly accept cash—but only if you show up at a payment center in person, so the viability of this depends on whether there is a location near you. Similarly, if your phone carrier has a storefront near you, cash payments are usually accepted—but if there’s no location nearby, you’ll be SOL.
  • Food. Grocery stores are probably the easiest places to use cash. Almost all grocery stores are still set up to accept cash, even if they have self-serve checkout kiosks. It can be a bit wonky feeding bill after bill into those kiosks, but it works, so this is a definitely!
  • Transportation. You can still use cash on most public transportation—although this is changing, so you’ll have to check your local service—and old-school taxis will usually take cash. You can also still buy a car—new or used—with cash; the dealer might be caught off guard, but they will accept your grubby, anonymous money. And while insurance companies aren’t thrilled by it, you can still stop off at their local office to pay in cash in most cases. The one solid exception here is rental cars. You might find a rental company that will let you settle your final bill with cash, but almost all of them require a credit card to make, hold, and secure the reservation. Still, cash-only transportation is mostly a yes.

Can you pay for the most common “extras” with cash?

OK, so you can live a bare-bones, cash-only lifestyle if you choose your living situation very carefully. But what if you actually want to leave your house and do things?

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  • Stores. Almost all retail stores will still accept cash—though you may find exceptions. Some states and cities have local laws that require all businesses to accept cash, including New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts, but for the most, part it’s up to the individual store to decide on a cash policy. But this remains a definitely for the time being.
  • Airlines. Yep, you can buy an airline ticket with cash in most cases—as long as you can physically go to the airline’s ticket booth. Most major airlines have ticket counters in the airport, so if you can get that far with cash, you can buy a ticket. Keep in mind that buying a ticket with cash sacrifices some of the advantages you get with a credit card, like easy refunds and some level of travel protection. But we’ll rate this a yes.
  • Hotels. This one is complicated. Basically, the fancier the hotel, the less likely it will accept cash. A run-down motel? Probably. A four-star luxury joint? Probably not. Some hotels will accept cash to settle your final bill, but will still require a credit card on file when you make the reservation and check-in. Some hotels will accept cash without a credit card if you’re a walk-in guest and can put down a deposit, but you have to call ahead to make sure of this. This is a maybe.

Other cash-only considerations

You can still manage a cash-only lifestyle if you really want to, though it will come with some limitations. But just because you can do it doesn’t mean there are no downsides:

  • Convenience. Insisting on cash limits your choices, in many cases requires extra effort, and sometimes will actually cost you more.
  • Supply. Living cash-only requires a lot of planning, because you need to have a supply of physical currency at all times. If you keep a bank account, you’ll need to actually go to the bank and withdraw funds—and if you spend your last dollar on a hot dog and have no carfare to get home, you will have zero options.
  • Theft. One of the most miraculous things about credit cards is how easy they make it to recover from theft. Frequently, reporting fraud on your credit cards results in zero loss to you personally. Losing cash, on the other hand, is nothing but loss. It’s impossible to get that money back unless you can physically track it down.

Final verdict: You sure can live a cash-only life. But it comes with some serious downsides you’ll have to take into consideration.

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